Femi Odugbemi: Filmmaking beyond the Mundane

From TV to Radio, commercials to Film, Femi Odugbemi is no doubt an expert. For the award-winning filmmaker and CEO at DVWORX Studios, there was no long and winding road to discovering his mission in broadcasting.

“I have always wanted to be a filmmaker, I have always loved pictures and images,” he said, adding that as a child, he “was blessed with that acute awareness that visual images can be very powerful.”  A notion, he obviously still strongly holds on to, especially when you hear him talk about the latent power of documentaries in engineering positive social change.

“There used to be a photographer in the house I grew up in at Fadeyi, Lagos; the old kind of photographer where the camera and photographer’s head are covered with black cloth. I used to seat outside and sell bread for my mother and I used to watch people come and take portrait photographs with him. What was brilliant about this early experience was that I always noticed that the photographer was the one in control creating a mood with the lighting, positioning the people and being the storyteller. I have always wanted to be that man, I guess.”

"I always noticed that the photographer was the one in control creating a mood with the lighting, positioning the people and being the storyteller. I have always wanted to be that man, I guess.” Image courtesy Femi Odugbemi
“I always noticed that the photographer was the one in control creating a mood with the lighting, positioning the people and being the storyteller. I have always wanted to be that man, I guess.” Image courtesy Femi Odugbemi

Like many image makers before and after him, one influence was a camera he received from his dad.

“This is what I love to do and I wake up in the morning wanting to do it. That’s where it began for me and the wonderful thing is there is no retirement age for a filmmaker, just an expiry date,” he laughed.

Visual Documentation

With a career spanning commercials, films, TV and radio programming, Odugbemi’s focus on documenting is very strong.

“I think effectively you have to understand that all these are just different products from one source so one affects the other and one influences the other in some way. Whatever I make as a filmmaker, whether it’s TV commercials, drama programming on TV, film or feature –  in a way they are all documentaries because they pass on the visual information of their context. The communication of context is key to every production and in a way this documents an experience. Documentaries are important now more than ever because they have power and they empower people, especially this generation of Africans.

“Documentary is empowering them to tell the story of their experiences in their own voice. The emergence of social networks, emergence of online friendship networks has given everybody a voice. The experiences that we are all having are happening so fast now, there is fast food, fast cars, fast miracles, fast everything. In fact, the experiences are so fast that we are only going to be able to bring perspective to them and define their impact on our lives through documentaries. It is very difficult for us to be able to imagine how we will capture these documentaries in depth without encouraging an awareness of documentary as a powerful and personal creative format that can put into permanent recollection our experiences of life as a Nigerian or as an African today. That is why that is my interest right now. I believe the greatest privilege of my life is to be a filmmaker, someone who without political power has an artistic voice.”

Despite having a multi-faceted creative career, Odugbemi does not prefer one form over the other, rather he believes every story picks what form tells it best. To buttress his point, he refers to MAROKO, his film on the forceful evacuation of the settlement’s residents back in the ‘90s as better told in feature form.

“Documentary is not a “lesser” form of creative art, it is actually just as potentially entertaining, informative and compelling as any other artistic form. Its difference really is that it is “fact-based” rather than fiction. So, for me there really is not a load of difference between documentary and film – documentary is filmmaking’s historical beginning.”

Above all, Odugbemi’s work aims to be entertaining and artistic. “That capacity to bring creativity to boot – to use lighting, to use sound, to use every power of the filmic medium to express my vision of the work as an artist is critical to my interaction with the viewer,” he said. His effort in producing a work of good quality is not to be missed as he points out that work on TINSEL, the wave-making MNET series took “one full year of agonising and working hard to make sure that the project is the best soap-opera in Nigeria.” He says the same of the nuances in BARIGA BOY, his documentary on performing artist Segun Adefila and his Crown Troupe of Africa. The documentary went on to win numerous awards at home and abroad.

More than just a film

“When you watch MAROKO or BAR BEACH BLUES. I want you to feel the emotional commitment. I want the audience to go away understanding that I put in a commitment that costs more than the budget. I am a filmmaker, who really wants to make a difference and I hope my audience can feel that in my work.”

As a rule, he will not make any film that is of no value to society. “If it doesn’t add anything to what we already know in the world, then why waste time regurgitating it?” he asked. “Whatever the subject matter is, it must be provocative and it must have meaning beyond the banal or mundane.”

The director desires to make a documentary about Nigerian politician Obafemi Awolowo, and Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

“I think [Awolowo] was one of the most fascinating characters that this country experienced. Truly, he might have been the best president Nigeria never had just like former President Babangida said. You couldn’t mistake the fact that the man was a political genius ahead of his time.” He lists Awolowo’s achievements as Premier of the Western Region such as constructing the Liberty Stadium, establishing Africa’s first television station and providing access to free education.

“That sort of person is a fascinating character and he ran a political organisation to which till tomorrow politicians are winning elections with its name.”

His wish to do a documentary on Fela may be half-met, with a 50th birthday tribute to the legend’s son Femi, released under Odugbemi’s production outfit DVWORX. “I think that one of the most interesting things about Fela is that for a character that people had such strong emotional reactions to, you’d expect his death to calm the controversy about his legacy. Rather, his music has grown more powerful and his message clearly establishes that he was a prophet ahead of his time.”

A documentary about the NADECO years is also on the cards, especially chronicling the underground activities and the heroes and villains that the period spurned.

How I work

Researching his subject’s background is an important component of Odugbemi’s art.  Describing his conditions for optimal effect, the director of the IREP Documentary Film Forum said, “The more information I have, the richer my perspective as a director or filmmaker can be. I also love to collaborate with other creative people. A lot of my energy, a lot of my work, is invested in collaborating with young filmmakers. There are lots of young people looking to create interesting new works so it’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker and to cross-fertilise ideas.”

Order and professionalism are however essential to working with the filmmaker. “As a Director, when the crew can see that you have come on-set well-prepared creatively and technically and the call-sheet is very clear about what and what happens and when on the set, the crew falls in line. I think to be professional is a key success factor. I also don’t work with unprofessional people. I check the work history of people I work with. It’s a small industry and if their reputation on set is dodgy, I steer clear of them. I’d rather work with an averagely talented professional than an undisciplined genius. I believe that order is the first thing even in heaven.”

In much the same way he cuts out hindering elements from his crew, being in the cutting room is Odugbemi’s favourite part of his job. “There’s a beauty and a craftsmanship that the tools of editing bring to the storytelling especially with the quantum of software available in video post-production. There are many creative tools in the editing room to bring to the footage from location immense profundity in sound, colour manipulations, movements, graphics and animations. In filmmaking, the editor is a major collaborator; his work is not technical as we tend to think here. His work is creative. If you have the right heads in the editing room, regardless of what you started with, by the time you are done in the post-, it should look better and sound better than you originally imagined.”

Beyond editing, pre-production planning must however be taken into consideration, Odugbemi says.

“To fail to plan, is to plan to fail. I don’t think that wise saying is more apt in any profession than in filmmaking. When you rush to work, when you have no detailed plan, of course you waste more time and more resources and get less value.”

Telling untold stories

He sees an important role for Nigerian film in effectively documenting Nigerian history, but believes there is more to be done in this aspect. His iRepresent Documentary Film Forum (and the attendant annual IREP International Documentary Film Festival – now past its second edition) was established for this purpose.

“It is critical that if we truly believe that this country will be a great world power some day, the evidence of history must be captured today for the future generation to experience the beginnings of this country’s progress, its struggles and the leaders who have built the foundations upon which that future greatness rests.”

In light of this, he recommends more documentaries need to be made, and there is no magic to spotting the right stories. “There are stories all around us every day,” Odugbemi exclaimed.

“The human experience is an ongoing narrative and I am particular about the beauty of the Nigerian experience despite all our troubles and contradictions. We are a land of a thousand stories. We are dramatic by nature and so many exciting things are happening particularly in this young generation that finding a brilliant idea for a great documentary shouldn’t be the problem. The history of Nigeria also holds a well of great stories for ideas. Not enough has been done in documentaries about the pre-colonial Nigeria, or perhaps the civil war years – there are inspiring stories of gallantry and valour on both sides of the war that we haven’t told on film.

“There are also contemporary stories today waiting to be told because documentaries are not just about history, documentaries are about experiences that are current. People are doing amazing things and we need to capture these strides as we watch the march of history unfold. The power of documentary is that it can open up the larger truths of history and help future generations to also be inspired and proud of their heritage. The possibilities for great storytelling in documentary are endless.”

As published in the Daily Sun (Friday, July 6, 2012)


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